The TEW Tour of California, Part III
Calluna, by Bonney Rowley
On the last day of our T. Edward West Coast Tour, the bus wound its way up to Calluna Vineyards to meet with winemaker David Jeffrey. In 2001, David left behind his career on the East Coast and began to pursue his passion for wine, enrolling in Fresno State’s Enology program. Shortly thereafter he lived and worked in Saint-Émilion, Bordeaux with Dr. Alain Raynaud, whose own family has been making wine on the Right Bank since the 15th century. Through his work abroad at Chateau Quinault, David began to draw comparisons between the climate in California and Bordeaux and was compelled to plant Bordelaise grapes back home. David’s experience working with Dr. Raynaud was hugely formative and would come to influence his winemaking style. In 2004, David purchased 80 acres in Chalk Hill and Calluna Vineyards was formed.
Calluna is situated in the Chalk Hill AVA with incredible views of the Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley, Knights Valley and the Mayacamas Mountains. Throughout our trip, each winemaker stressed the effects of four years of drought on their vineyard sights. Estates like Calluna, which have two-and-a-half-feet of heavy clay along with sandstone and shale-based soils, have fared better than most.
The North side of the property, which has more clay rich soils, is planted to Merlot and Cabernet on the west side and to Cab Franc, Petite Verdot and Malbec on the south side. The climate of Chalk Hill is driven by its proximity to the ocean, where the afternoon fog visibly rolls in to the valley bringing with it a cooling breeze that helps maintain the grapes’ acidity during the warmest months.
In the cellar, David utilizes techniques learned from his time spent with Dr. Raynaud. The vines at Calluna bear fruit with both ripeness and natural acidity that needs little doctoring in the cellar and brings a traditional sense of balance to the wine. One site that David ferments in unique way is the Cabernet Sauvignon from “Colonel’s Vineyard”. He ferments the fruit from this site in barrel, rotating the barrels at least twice a day. This technique is best suited to more tannic varietals such as Cabernet, and helps to create a more rounded and silky mouth feel. It is most popularly used with Bordeaux varietals that can hold up to this type of exposure to wood and is certainly a labor of love. David wanted to highlight the quality of the fruit from this specific site while also paying homage to his mentor, creating wine that is unapologetically Californian but can certainly hold its own against the greatest wines in the world.
Keever Vineyards, by Paul Masters
What used to be a broken down old horse farm is now Keever Vineyards, nestled in these rocky hillsides just to the south and west of Yountville township, protected from the tail-end of the afternoon sun by the ridgeline of the Mayacamas Hills. From here at about 80-100m above the valley floor, one looks out over a vast swath of the Napa Valley, including about 200 acres of vineyards on the flats belonging to Krug.
The property is 22 acres in total with only six and a half acres of rocky, hillside vineyards that are planted on mostly gravelly clay loam that’s managed by renowned viticulturist Jim Barbour. The Keevers, with Jim and his team, farm about 2.5 tons per acre here on well-drained soil that’s more rock than anything else.
“The first one and one-half acres that we planted soon after buying the property had [once] been horse corrals,” said Bill, “and those flat surfaces had been cut into the hillsides long ago when, if you wanted to do that, you jumped on your bulldozer and did it. If you tried that now,” he continued, “the firing squad would show up and you’d be toast. ” And while things have certainly changed, Bill wasn’t the only farmer we spoke with to express frustration at not being able to work his land as he sees fit.
Esteemed winemaker Celia Welch joined Keever right at the beginning after spending just one hour walking over the property. That first vintage was in 2002, which yielded all of 46 cases. Nowadays, total case production is still tiny, at about 2,000 cases per year.
On July 14th of 2006, the winery, designed by Celia, was completed, and is now where Celia also opts to make her own wines under the Corra label.
Bill and Olga’s son Jason grew up on the property and is now in charge of the day-to-day winery operations. During harvest and crush he works tirelessly to carry out Celia’s highly detailed program. With each of the different blocks fermented in separate tanks and kept in separate barrels, there’s a lot of work for an almost entirely family-staffed winery to do.
Preferring to age her wines in French oak from different coopers, Celia works with a lot of different French barrel suppliers to find the specifications she requires. Each year, she employs a number of different iterations from different coopers, or different toast levels and forest selections from the same cooper.
“I can look at grain, I can see pore size and so forth, but I’m not an expert at being able to select a stave that will get it [the desired barrel results],” said Celia. “But I know that those guys, that’s what they do – they’re really good at it. And it doesn’t translate very well from this vineyard to the next vineyard down the road, it’s really, really vineyard specific.”
Elizabeth Spencer by Paul Masters
Clambering down from our tour bus we met the team at Elizabeth Spencer Wines in the gardens next to the beautiful little brick building from the 1870s that is their tasting room. Located just off of Highway 29 in the heart of Rutherford township, it used to be the Rutherford Post Office until the mid-aughts. Greeted by Spencer and a glass of Chenin Blanc we made our way to the canopied tables and joined his wife Elizabeth and the rest of their crew for an outstanding lunch and an overview of the Elizabeth Spencer history.
Arriving in Napa Valley in 1978 to work as a winery tour guide, Elizabeth has a long history of working at Napa Wineries, including Araujo, Etude and Kamen. Spencer too, has been involved in the wine industry for his entire working life, first as a chef and then as a sommelier before working in distribution and now overseeing the winemaking for his own label.
Without owning either vineyards or a winery, Elizabeth and Spencer make terrific wines. Purchasing grapes from a small number of growers in Napa Valley, the Sonoma Coast and Mendocino, they make their wines nearby with winemaker Sarah Vandendriessche, a New Orleans transplant who’s now deeply rooted in Napa. We had a chance to get to know Sarah, who has been with them since 2010, while being treated to some stunners during a vertical tasting going back to 2002.
“We tend to make wines with slightly lower alcohol,” said Spencer, “and those are qualities that come across in the wines. We’re looking for orchestration. And it all comes back to the relationships you have with the people you work with, your customers, your family… it’s all there.”
Vine Hill Ranch, by Paul Masters
Family documents show that Napa Valley growers have farmed Vine Hill Ranch since 1884, with grapes, plums, pears and other crops. It’s actually these old records that inspired the wine label at Vine Hill Ranch, where in 1959, the Phillips family first came to this gently sloping corner of Oakville, near the Mayacamas. Here, they began been quietly producing exceptional fruit, for which Napa has become known. When Bruce Phillips recounts his father’s peers and friends, it sounds like a list of who’s who from the birth of modern Napa, including the likes of Andy Beckstoffer of Beckstoffer Vineyards and Tom May of Martha’s Vineyard.
At Vine Hill Ranch, the family produces single-vineyard wine from estate fruit, partnering closely with viticulturist Mike Wolf and winemaker Françoise Peschon, both of whom are widely recognized masters of the Californian winemaking landscape. Working with the vines since 1998, Mike was joined by Françoise in 2008. “We really wanted to hold up a wine that spoke of the essence of this place,” said Bruce, “also that really celebrated the notion of vintage and vintage variability. And that’s why Francoise is such a magical partner because she honors what every vintage brings.”
One of the fascinating things about VHR is the opportunity to see grapegrowers become winemakers up close – while the family has been growing and selling acclaimed fruit for over 50 years, the first VHR crush was only in 2008, released in 2011. Each vintage sees the careful selection of different blocks for the eponymous VHR, from the hillside plots that reside against the Mayacamas to the benchland plantings down low that offer very different fruit characteristics, providing additional layers of depth and complexity. The fruit from the benchlands bring a lot of energy and red fruit character to the blends, while the hillside fruit provides the essence and structure of the wines.
While tasting the 2011 and 2012 vintages side-by-side, Mike said, “I think in some ways, because it  was such a difficult vintage, it’s kind of a big source of pride that we were able to actually make something of this quality.”
“Yes,” said Françoise. “It’s the challenging vintages that are far more interesting to me. Those are the interesting wines; the vintages where you are needed are far more satisfying.”